There Are No Saints in Jerusalem’s Church Crisis

Caught between the grandstanding of church leaders and the cynical point-scoring of Israeli politicians, the real victims are Christian pilgrims and Jerusalem residents

A worshipper kisses the Stone of Anointing, where Christians believe the body of Jesus was prepared for burial, in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalemױs Old City, February 28, 2018. REUTERS/Ammar Awad

The Church of the Holy Sepulchre reopened its doors at 4 A.M. Wednesday morning after remaining closed to thousands of heartbroken pilgrims from around the world for three days, thus denying what was for some of them a once-in-a-lifetime chance to venerate Jesus’ resting place.

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From reading the statement released Sunday by the local leaders of the Greek Orthodox, Roman Catholic and Armenian Apostolic churches, in closing the church they were fighting for the very survival of the Holy Land’s Christian communities. “This reminds us all of laws of a similar nature, which were enacted against the Jews during the dark periods in Europe,” they declared.

Were they referring to the Nuremberg Laws or perhaps the Spanish Inquisition? Actually, the churches are facing much more mundane attempts to tax their commercial properties and regulate the real estate deals some of them have engaged in, with potential implications for thousands of tenants.

Christian clerics reopening the doors of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem, February 28, 2018.
Mahmoud Illean/AP

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I had a few conversations with various church representatives this week, to try and understand their real concerns. Some continued the hysterical, historic tone, accusing the Israeli government of “discriminating” against Christians because Jewish synagogues are not subject to similar treatment. This is at best an ignorant argument, since Jerusalem’s synagogues aren’t landowners: None of them hold large tracts of residential areas, hotels and restaurants, as many of the churches do.

I finally found one church spokesperson who gave me a more clear-eyed assessment. “We’re a tiny minority here – only 170,000 Christians in Israel, without political power,” he explained. “What else can we do to protest when politicians are piling on us? Our only alternative is to close the [Church of the Holy] Sepulchre and try to create an international backlash. That’s the only way we can try and fight this.”

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Demonstrators protesting outside the closed doors of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem, February 27, 2018.
Mahmoud Illean/AP

I had some sympathy with that argument, even though it still ignores the fact that the current crisis is, at least in part, self-inflicted: Certain clergy members, especially in the Greek Orthodox Church, have proved adept in the not-too-distant past at navigating Jerusalem’s real estate maze for their own financial benefit, including shady deals with settler groups.

They have contributed to the current impasse. And while closing the Holy Sepulchre church is a decision for its custodians, the churches’ legitimate grievances certainly don’t justify the outrageous historical comparisons made by their leaders on Sunday.

But none of the sides in this controversy are acting in good faith. Certainly not Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat, who decided unilaterally to seize church bank accounts, claiming they are in arrears of 650 million shekels ($186 million) on their local taxes.

Why the sudden action? Barkat is fighting a political battle against Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon for more state funds to cover the municipal deficit, so why not provoke a diplomatic crisis with the Vatican to put some more pressure on the government? Besides, he is preparing his long-expected Likud leadership campaign for the day after Netanyahu departs, so a bit of church-bashing will go down well with the party faithful.

Visitors praying inside the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem, February 28, 2018.
Mahmoud Illean/AP

The Knesset members pushing a law to expropriate Jerusalem land that developers bought from the churches aren’t acting wisely, either. Even accepting their claims to be acting solely in the interests of tenants who could lose leases and homes they have lived in for, in some cases, more than 50 years, the proposed law was badly drafted and horribly titled. The bill’s author, MK Rachel Azaria (Kulanu), harbors her own ambitions to become Jerusalem mayor, and is naturally on the lookout to help her potential constituents. But calling it the “church lands law” was at best a dreadful faux pas, opening her and Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked – who endorsed the law – to the exact accusations of discrimination that the church leaders used.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who finally entered the fray on Tuesday afternoon, wants to be seen as the responsible adult pouring oil on troubled waters. But this whole sorry saga doesn’t say much for his handling of sensitive affairs while facing his own legal problems. Barkat is a loyal Likudnik and Azaria a lawmaker in his governing coalition. And besides, as foreign minister as well, Netanyahu is fully aware of international sensitivities to the churches’ issue. Why did it take him three days to act?

“Israel is proud to be the only country in the Middle East where Christians and believers of all faiths have full freedom of religion and worship,” Netanyahu said in his statement on Tuesday. This affair has hardly been a good advertisement for that.

The church leaders have portrayed themselves as the victims in this story. At the same time, though, they are trying to avoid their responsibilities as major landowners in a city where real estate deals are always fraught with political implications, hiding behind a “status quo” that is no longer fit for purpose.

The Roman Catholic representation in Jerusalem grandly calls itself the “Custodian of the Holy Land,” but a custodian has duties as well. As of course does the Israeli government, which has done little to solve the real problems of historic ownership of Jerusalem’s residential areas.

Caught between the grandstanding of church leaders and the cynical point-scoring of Israeli politicians, the real victims in this story are tenants, both Israeli and Palestinian, who may lose their leases, and the thousands of Christian pilgrims who faithfully saved up for years to make the visit to Jerusalem – only to have their dreams dashed this week outside the closed doors of the Holy Sepulchre church.